The Pustule-in-Chief


Today, I found myself reading a fine essay by Emily Temple on Hulu’s television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s book, The Handmaid’s Tale. Throughout the read of this otherwise excellent article, my mind kept screaming “Stop making Trump into some sort of all-powerful being!” It makes him appear far more competent than he really is.

Trump is nothing like “He-Who Must-Not-Be-Named,” the Voldemort of Harry Potter fame. Vile as he is, Trump is merely a bumbling bloviating buffoon with the mental capacity of a dryer sheet. Sure, he is a revolting excuse for a human being, but the only power he really has is that which we, the people, decide to give him. It’s almost sad, really, to see how completely inept he is on a daily basis. I’ve known toddlers with more mature comportment.

I do understand some of where Temple is coming from in her distaste to even mention the orange gorilla’s name (no offense to gorillas). I have personally made it a mission of mine never to put the words “president” and “Trump” directly next to each other, either verbally or in writing. It just won’t happen. Not because I fear any supposed power he has as president, but simply because he does not deserve the title.

Trump is a scourge, an oozing pustule on the face of America, and it’s no wonder we all want to look away. He has exposed the dark underbelly of the racism, sexism and xenophobia that has plagued our country since its founding; but although these radical right-wing supporters of his are loud, obnoxious, and completely uncaring of anyone but themselves, they are not the majority of Americans. Nearly 75% of the voting population did not vote for this clown. It is these Americans who will keep the United States from devolving into Gilead, the country of Atwood’s nightmare.

Temple speaks for many of us, however, in saying her greatest fear with the gradually creeping removal of our civil liberties is that “like the women in The Handmaid’s Tale, we will not notice—not fully, not enough—until it is too late. We will go over the edge still thinking we have time.” It’s true, we don’t have time; and it’s particularly frustrating for those of us who are aware of it and who are struggling to wake those who are still asleep to the fact that the house is burning down and we need to get out RIGHT NOW.

But with each day, Trump digs himself in deeper, as do the Republicans and other legislators who seem to believe they will somehow be protected from the rage of the American people when they finally have had enough and decide to depose them all, ejecting them from their high tower like the cruel despots they are.

I highly recommend Temple’s article (and The Handmaid’s Tale). She accurately pinpoints some of the the emotional effects this series can have on its viewers in a time when dystopian fiction all too closely resembles current reality. In its own way, this series is helping people to become aware of the danger of what can happen to a sleeping population if they don’t nip political diseases such as Trump and his ilk in the bud.

However, giving in to fear accomplishes nothing. I, for one, refuse to cower before some moron who can’t manage to put two coherent words together in the same sentence. We have to keep reminding ourselves that we are the ones with the power to create the government we want and need. When that 75% of us get out in the street to demand it, we will finally have the country we envision. And it will look nothing like Gilead.



The Pustule-in-Chief

That time I met Neil Gaiman

Gaiman hat

I did not really start reading “literature,” as such, until about 3 years ago. Despite never having lacked a book to read from the time I was 5 years old, the novels I had read consisted of whatever flotsam and jetsam I had unearthed on the shelves of the local library that sounded interesting. They were fine for entertainment purposes, but the writing was typically standard, with content that did not necessarily make you think. Not exactly chick lit, but not War and Peace either. The only classics I had read were what we had been required to read for school—A Tale of Two Cities, Animal Farm, Beowulf—works that did not really predispose me to stay up until the wee hours with a manic inability to put them down.

But when I started writing my own book, all that changed. I suddenly realized that I knew absolutely nothing about good writing. So I started with a novel about Paris, one of my favorite places in the world. Tropic of Cancer was a revelation. Henry Miller (a fellow native New Yorker) really knew how to tell a story. As he wrote to his Brooklyn friend, Emil Schnellock, the book was going to be “first person, uncensored, formless—fuck everything!” Reading his prose showed me there were more creative and poetic ways of telling a story, that got to the heart of experience, with all its attendant emotional messiness.

So I began reading as many classic authors as I could, in an attempt to catch up with the decades I had wasted reading the literary equivalent of cheap wine. Dostoyevsky, Thackeray, Tolkien, Sylvia Plath, and a host of others considered better than your average hack. I also joined a book club, which made me read books I never would otherwise have chosen for myself. I had read Stephen King’s On Writing, but had never actually read any of his novels. After beginning The Shining, I had to confine myself to reading only during the day, with all the lights on. I was stunned to find that simple words on a page could be utterly terrifying.

But a couple of years before this discovery of great writers and the power they could have to transform one’s view of just about everything, I got to meet Neil Gaiman.

To my eternal embarrassment, I had no idea who he was.

I had agreed to be part of an opening event at the gallery of a friend in Utrecht, where I was to model hats designed by his daughter, Holly. (The hats were absolutely gorgeous, by the way, and I would have bought one if I could have afforded it—guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree).

My friend, who is Gaiman’s sister-in-law, came over and said “Come on, I’ll introduce you to Neil.”

I followed her as she walked up to this slightly rumpled-looking guy with longish tousled greying curls, who looked as though he had just gotten out of bed.

“Neil, this is my friend, Laurel.”

“Hi,” I said, shaking his hand.

“Hello,” he said.

At which point there followed a long, rather awkward silence. I had absolutely nothing to say. Apart from having been told by a friend that he wrote novels, I knew nothing else about him. In my defense, it would not be until a couple of years later that I would be familiar enough with good writing to know who he was, but still. You would have thought I could come up with something to say. Nada.

So he eventually turned to talk to someone else (who was most certainly much more interesting and with whom he could hold an intelligent conversation) and I went back to modeling hats.

Although I still have only read one short story he wrote, A Study in Emerald, I have since learned more about who he is and have read much of his advice to writers. A man possessing an uncommon wisdom and seemingly an all-around good guy.

He recently posted something on his blog, however, that made me feel just a bit better about venturing into the realm of writing, wondering if anything I had to write would be worth reading: “I was, and still am, nervous about putting a book of non-fiction out into the world. I’m not scared of putting out fiction, but there’s part of me that wonders if I have any right to burble in public about what I believe and hope and care about, that wonders if anyone is going to be interested in essays on books that (in a few cases) it seems like nobody cares about but me, or on the state of comics in 1993, or on how to write a review a book you find, when the deadline comes, you’ve mislaid.” Apparently, even great writers feel unsure of themselves at times.

But the thing is, even if I were to meet him now, I seriously doubt our conversation would have progressed much further than it did that day. I still don’t think I would have anything intelligent to contribute to the conversation and would probably still feel like a complete idiot. But hey, at least I got to wear a nice hat for a few hours.

That time I met Neil Gaiman

Tea-addled compulsive knitter or writer?

A few months ago I found myself looking at yet another post from The Paris Review, this one featuring a photo of a writer named Karl Ove Knausgaard (obviously Scandinavian). The image is of a gorgeous man with a scruffy beard and long stringy hair smoking a cigarette. The essence of Cool. But why is it we identify this sort of character as being “cool”? Does a good writer have to have an alcohol problem and be a nihilistic chain smoker?

What I’m really wondering is why are people like myself, who enjoy spending an evening knitting, accompanied by a cup of tea (well, ok, maybe a large glass of wine…but still) not considered cool? My outward persona is decidedly not the writerly type. I don’t have that edginess that the literati seem to appreciate. Without an addiction, how can I possibly have anything important to say? After a while I begin to wonder myself if I really have anything worthy to convey. Who wants to read a novel about optimism and beauty? How quaint. If I were writing a book about my life as a part-time hooker with a substance abuse problem I got as a child from being drugged up by my parents it would be a best-seller. Heaven forbid if I had a boring suburban childhood. Who wants to read about that? It’s not that my life has not been interesting, it’s just that I am not haunted by demons.

There certainly must be some noted writers who had relatively stable lives, right? Or should I start looking for more yarn?

Tea-addled compulsive knitter or writer?

Righteous Indignation

In a Paris Review interview with Louise Erdrich, she mentions having once wrongly been put in the “naughty box” at school for something she did not do, describing her righteous indignation. It brought to mind a similar event that happened to me when I was in junior high school.

It took place in the very first days of class in September, when we were all still an unknown quantity to my history teacher, a serious white-haired man, nearing retirement. For the life of me, I can’t remember his name. I had chosen a desk by the window two or three rows back. As Erdrich had described herself, I was also “a model child,” although the teacher did not yet know that. (Not the annoying kind that everyone hates, just one who kept to herself most of the time and did her work).

On this particular day, there was a boy sitting behind me who took delight in kicking the back of my seat surreptitiously as the teacher was talking, making it look as though I were some sort of deranged Mexican jumping bean, hopping up and down in my chair. The teacher reprimanded me, and, embarrassed, I sheepily protested it was the fault of the boy behind me. A minute or so later, the same thing happened, at which point the teacher ordered me to go sit in the back of the room. I was stunned at the injustice. He did not want to hear any arguments that it was not my fault—that I had been set up by the vicious boy behind me.

Within a few weeks it was obvious who had been at fault. I had begun to prove myself the model student and this boy had frequently been found smoking weed behind the gym, often skipping school for days at a time. I have rarely felt pure evil emanating from anyone, but this was the sense I got whenever I passed by this boy in school. I avoided hi whenever I could, though he actually took no notice of me whatsoever after that first day in class.

Still, I never quite got over that sense of indignation at being wrongly accused after being humiliated in class. Junior high is the worst age for those kinds of feelings. And for a long time I was bothered by the fact that I did not stand up for myself as I should have. Some months later, however, justice was finally served. Someone had found this boy in an abandoned house, drug paraphernalia scattered throughout, having hanged himself. Most of my fellow students were stunned. I suppose I should have felt some snippet of compassion for him, but all I could feel was a deep sense of satisfaction knowing that the little fucker had finally gotten what he deserved.

Erdrich said in her interview, “This was just the first of the many humiliations of my youth that I’ve tried to revenge through my writing. I have never fully exorcised shames that struck me to the heart as a child….” Isn’t that why everyone becomes a writer?

Righteous Indignation

“All is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis”

So wrote Henry Miller in 1944 in his essay “Of Art and the Future.” On this, what would have been his 123rd birthday, I felt the need to revisit some of my favorite quotes of his. Whatever anyone thinks of his writing (and I think he was a genius), he was someone who lived life to the full, capturing in words all the experiences he had, the places he lived, the people he met, and did not “clean them up” for the tastes of a genteel population. He was true to both himself and his readers.

One of the best videos of him is a three-minute interview that I found on YouTube that was filmed when he was on his deathbed. He mused about not knowing what the afterlife was like, or if there even was one — “I guess I’ll find out soon,” he said. At the same time he noted that if there was a god, he had a lot of explaining to do about the state of the world. But what really impressed me was that he lived fully even so close to death. His last words to the interviewer were “I’m alive to the end!” And so he was. So may we all be.

“All is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis”

On change…

The key to keeping life from driving one to insanity, at least from my perspective, is to embrace change as much as possible. Or at least get to a point of acceptance because change is inevitable. The Buddhists got it right by teaching that the best way to “happiness” is to achieve a state of non-attachment. But oddly, I was never able to really embrace Buddhism because of that very same non-attachment. I like to be really immersed in things. To feel the full range of human emotion, no matter that it makes me uncomfortable, angry, grumpy, morose, or what have you. Over the years I have come to accept that if I let go and just see what happens, things usually work out all right anyway, and I have spared myself the emotional exhaustion of trying to get life to bend to my will (which never works anyway). What I am learning is that change can spur creativity if I let it. The problem is that I have not yet learned quite well enough how to get out of my own way.

On change…